Monday, October 15, 2018

Balance


The wise old man came for Sunday lunch at the Tavern. He is as thin as a wafer but eats like a Sumo wrestler. He exploited the buffet with gusto. “You must have been hungry,” I observed. “I noticed that myself,” he replied with a chuckle. After lunch, we rocked on the front porch and talked about a great range and mixture of topics.

My mountain bicycle stays on the porch and he wanted to know all about it, from the disc brakes to the 21-speed derailleurs. He said he judged it to be a well-balanced machine that required good balance from a rider. “Have you ever wrecked it,” he wanted to know. “Just one time, at a dead standstill,” I replied. “I had stopped at the bottom of the great hill that rises from Pioneer Cemetery when I attempted to mount the vehicle against gravity and gravity won.” We laughed about that a good while until he lit on the topic of balance.

“You know, Dan, Horace, the first Century rhetorician believed in balance in speaking and writing. The old Roman wrote that all artful communication must be dulcet et utile, meaning sweet and useful; we would say entertaining and enlightening. And, those two elements, Horace wrote, must be kept in balance. If the scale tips too far in the direction of entertainment, the communication seems trivial and inconsequential. On the other hand, if the communication works too hard at enlightenment, it gets boring and loses the audience’s attention. So, balance makes the writing or speaking both fun and pithy.”

The wise old man gratefully received the hot tea my wife brought out. Providing crocheted lap robes because of the dropping temperature, she joined us on the porch. She said, “What was that about balance?” The wise old man said, “You know, Mrs. Ford, I work on a donkey and goat ranch near Ruston and I have a couple of gelding donkeys I plow with down there. Their names are Check and Balance. Check is the absent-minded one, not always knowing and obeying gee, haw, whoa and back up. Balance, however, is obedient, but not as strong and hardy as Check. Between the two of them, we get the job done, though it sometimes takes considerable negotiation.”

“Makes me proud to be an American,” my wife joked. The wise old man laughed so heartily that he jostled his tea. Then he said, “Thank God for checks and balances in our government. Lady Justice requires it. You know, that statue, in ancient iterations, had a sword in the hand not occupied with the fulcrum and scales. It was pointed down to the Ten Commandments, the very place our formalized sense of justice comes from. Though Justice is blind, she is poised to protect the law. That is balance in itself: peace is the goal, but justice must be protected.

“Wow,” my wife said, “you are always a welcome visitor. How did you get here today?” I rode the train and took a taxi. I’ve been down in Denton with my girlfriend. I lead a balanced life, and she keeps me in check.”

Monday, October 1, 2018

Home Again


The premise of Thomas Wolfe’s great novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, is that we change to such a degree when we are away from home for any length of time that home seems different when we go back there. Also, people who have stayed at home change, too, so, those visions in our absence of home as utopia are shattered upon our return.

Robert Frost’s narrative poem, “Death of the Hired Man,” reiterates the friction brought about by change, both in those who wander and in those who stay at home. Silas, the hired man, comes back ostensibly to help with haying, but Warren, the farm owner, and his wife, Mary, sense that he has come back to die. Quite cynically, Warren defines home as the place where when you have to go there, they have to take you in. Mary, however, says that home is something granted that you don’t deserve. Silas prevails and has his way in the midst of all the changing circumstances. It is as if Frost believes that no one deserves the blessings of home, but everyone’s longing for home should be honored.

My own longing for home was intense during my three-year tour of duty in Germany. When I finally got home, though, I realized that everything had changed, both in my folks and in me: Mother and Pop seemed to have grown and changed as much as I had, and I quickly realized that we had grown in different directions altogether.

Peter, as depicted in the last chapter of John’s gospel, had grown dramatically in a direction very different from his familiar occupation of fisherman. Nevertheless, we find him attempting to return to the trade, even though his life had been significantly altered by recent mind-blowing events. Camping at the lake, one night, he said, “I’m going fishing,” and several of his companions jumped into the boat with him. They fervently fished all night long but caught nothing. At about dawn, a fellow standing on the bank the length of a football field away, said, “Hey, y’all, any luck?” They gave the fisherman’s shrug. He said, “Throw the net on the other side of the boat. That’s where the fish are.” When they pulled in the net, they had 153 nice ones. That’s when John said, “It is the Lord.”

At that, Peter put on his coat and jumped into the water. Ordinarily, one would strip down to jump in, but Peter probably thought he was going to be walking on the water again, since it was the Lord over there on the bank. He had to swim on in though and Jesus had some fish cooking and some bread toasting on coals. He said, bring some of those you caught and add them. Come have breakfast. He already had something cooking and wanted them to participate. That is the Lord.

So, things had changed radically for Peter. He wanted to return home, that is, to the familiar occupation of fishing. However, he found that he had changed and that Jesus had changed his profession to that of fishing for men, or, as he told Peter later in the day, feeding his sheep. When we realize, “It is the Lord,” everything changes. You can’t go home again.

Monday, September 24, 2018

When a Lie is Not a Lie


Each blind person in the famous parable of the elephant reported that the creature was something other than what it actually was—a rope, a tree, a wall. Our perceptions are often not absolute truth. There is an absolute truth, though. The elephant existed, though perceptions of it were diverse. We should not get stuck on initial impressions, but keep looking for the elephant as it truly is.

A false story is a lie only if it is intended to deceive. In fact, some false stories can tell a deeper truth than factual ones. For example, Aesop’s fables are obviously false on the surface—animals cannot talk—but they contain morals and other life applications that could not be communicated as effectively without the narrative. Also consider that statement ascribed to Jesus of Nazareth about removing the log hanging out of your eye before attempting to remove a speck from your companion’s. The moral of judging yourself before condemning others comes through much better by way of that image than by abstract moralizing.

Similarly, Aesop’s fable of The Dog and the Wolf illustrates that freedom is more important than comfort. A famished wolf in the fable creeps into the yard of a well-fed dog and compliments him on his sleek appearance. The dog is comfortable and happy, but the wolf notices a worn place on the dog’s neck and comments upon it. The dog says, “That is where they keep me tied up. You see, I belong to the humans in that house.” The wolf acts out his reply by fading back into the woods. Thus, the fable asserts that it is better to be free and hungry than captive and well-fed.

So, there is a place for false stories of the kind that tell a deeper truth than fact. But, chances are that when you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, you do not wax parabolic. You tell it like it is, as the Hippies used to chant during Viet Nam and Watergate. And, to some degree, they were right to question language of obfuscation and political expediency. However, we should not question one’s honesty just because he or she has a command of a sophisticated vocabulary. The late Democrat Sam Irwin of North Carolina, who became famous for his command of language and his almost British Southern accent during the Watergate hearings, was once questioned as to how he knew a document carried a specific meaning. His reply was classic: “Because I read English; it's my mother tongue.”

Our mother tongue should be designed to get rid of everything that is not the truth. As in Ephesians 4, we should practice speaking the truth in love. Just as the sculptor scrapes away all that is not the work of art in a block of marble, the skilled speaker or writer gets rid of obfuscation and gets down to the nitty gritty truth.  Truth is not relative. It is one thing, spin it how we will.

Monday, September 17, 2018

A Unique Friendship


During my time in graduate school at Auburn University, an entomologist and his wife lived in the apartment next door to my wife and me. The bug man and I became car-washing buddies one Sunday afternoon. We developed a friendship and remained close buddies throughout grad school and afterwards. At the outset of our relationship, he seemed to be a sternly serious-minded fellow who did not smile or laugh at all. I have always been quick with a quip, pun or joke, so, at first, I got a lot of blank stares from my stolid friend. Later, as our friendship developed, though, he learned to laugh. I saw why he was reluctant to laugh when I realized he could not control the mirth. I mean, he was a fall-to-the-floor laugher.

He had a study going on out at one of Auburn’s large ponds involving weirdly constructed flytraps. He was studying some esoteric thing about reproductive habits of adult horseflies and he was diligent and focused. He invited me to go along on the horsefly study one Saturday, telling me to bring my fishing stuff because there were bream in that pond. While he collected his bugs along the bank and attended to his clipboard, I pulled in one big old bulge-headed bluegill after another. Later, back at the apartment when I started scaling the catch with a spoon, my friend stopped me. He had a better idea. With the skill of a surgeon he skinned and filleted those bream in a jiffy. My wife fried the plump filets Southern fashion with French fries and hot water cornbread and he and his wife joined us for a great feast, replete with onions and radishes.

After he received his masters’ degree, as an Army reservist, he shipped out to Viet Nam. I got several letters from him and wrote him often, sending him encouraging words with some good jokes I thought he would like. In my mind’s eye I could see him falling back on his bunk laughing breathlessly. He came home safely from the war and moved on to his first civilian job at about the time I joined the faculty at Southern State College.

Early in my tenure there, the bug man called me. He was in town and we went to eat and he and his wife spent some time with us. He told me he was studying the larvae of mosquitos from holes up in trees. His theory was that mosquitos that deposited their larvae in tree holes were hardier than those that developed at ground level. They invited us to camp alongside them up at De Gray so I could help him collect wigglers. We went and enjoyed it. He climbed trees with a syphon hose and jar and came back down with his prize. I watched and tried not to say anything funny. It was a successful field trip.

A few weeks after that visit, I received a U. S. Government package containing a test tube with an adult tree-hole mosquito mounted on a pin, purportedly from those wigglers we collected. I gave it a prominent place on my desk as I must have been the only English teacher in America that had an adult tree hole mosquito on display.

Monday, September 3, 2018

From Curse to Blessing


Don’t you just love those rare instances in which what seems to be a curse turns out to be a blessing? I have only had a few of those in my life. One of them happened at Auburn University half a century ago.

Upon my graduation from Southern State College, Auburn offered me a National Defense Education Act (NDEA) Fellowship that covered three years of study toward the doctor of philosophy. It paid tuition and a modest salary. I wrote the Veterans Administration and told them about the NDEA Fellowship since I was also drawing the G. I. Bill for veterans returning to school and I was aware that it was illegal at that time to receive two kinds of federal benefits.

The VA kept sending the checks, though, and I opened a savings account for the money in case I ever had to pay it back. I called the VA and reminded them of the letter. They found it in their file and thanked me for the reminder. But the checks kept coming. At about the time that bank account had accrued close to $1,000, a lot of money for 1967, the graduate school dean called me in and asked if I were receiving the G.I. Bill money in addition to the NDEA stipend. “Yes, sir, but I notified the VA that I had the fellowship.” He replied that I had not notified him about the G. I. Bill money I was receiving and that I should have. I explained that I did not consider that necessary as long as one party knew. I told him my preference was to keep the NDEA and drop the G. I. Bill.

He told me that there could be penalties involved, and dismissed me with that vague information. Here I am, I thought, trying to get a Ph. D. degree on benefits that came from serving my country and excelling in studies. I notified the VA doing what I thought was right and still and I may go to jail. There was fear as well as self-pity in that thought. That evening at dinner, I told my wife about the visit with the dean and she was equally concerned. Her firm support was a mainstay during that difficult part of the graduate school experience. There at the outset of my advanced studies, I felt as if I were out of my league anyway, but that visit to the dean almost led me to other pursuits.

Well, in a few days the dean called me back in and, in a much kinder voice, said that he had done some research and that the VA sent him a copy of the letter of notification I had, indeed, registered with them. He also said that President Lyndon B. Johnson had the week before signed legislation that cleared the way for vets to receive multiple federal benefits regarding educational issues. Thus, I kept the fellowship, had money in the bank and did not go to jail. The blessing was almost equal to the curse.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Syncopation


You know, sometimes people can be more honest than they intend to be. I heard a story a long time ago that illustrates that fact. A man was hiding something from his wife, but his secrecy backfired on him.

He handled alcohol well but drank way too much, often clandestinely. After work every day, for example, he went to Bill’s Bar and had one martini only. Bill and the regulars admired his restraint. What they didn’t know was that he then went to Sam’s Saloon on the next block and had a couple more. But even Sam’s clientele opined that the man knew how to drink moderately—two martinis and then home to the wife. But often he made a third stop at Tim’s Tavern for a drink or two. So, when he got home, he was sloshed. He handled it so well, though, that his wife didn’t notice. She just thought he was tired from working so hard.

“Would you like a drink, dear,” he would query upon his arrival home, though he certainly did not need one himself.

“Yes, I’ll have a little wine.”

He would go to the pantry, chug a little gin, pour her some wine and make a martini. His martinis were strong as he just waved the cork of a Vermouth bottle over a water glass of straight gin and dropped a few cubes of ice into it. The wife would sip her wine, while he smoked a big cigar, hid behind the evening paper and had a couple more drinks.

Well, this routine caught up with him and he began to feel bad all the time. She urged him to go to the doctor, a family friend, but he declined, until she finally made the appointment for him and insisted he go. Reluctantly, he showed up.

The doctor found nothing much physically wrong except that he could see and smell that the man was drinking too much. He advised him to cut booze out all together or at least to be moderate with it. All the man would say was, “Don’t tell my wife.” The doctor assured him he would not tell.

After the appointment he went to a couple of bars for fortification, wondering what he would tell his wife. On the way home, he passed a music store and saw some sheet music with the bold title, SYNCOPATION. That sounds like a disease, he thought.

“What did the doctor say,” his wife wanted to know as he brought in the evening drinks.

“You know how these doctors are, dear, you can’t tell much about what they say.”

“But did he name your problem. Did he diagnose anything?”

He lit a cigar and hid behind the paper, but she kept up the interrogation.

At length, after a few pulls on his martini, he said, “I have syncopation, dear, and I will just have to live with it. There is not much chance I will get any better.”

She looked it up and the first definition was, “Staggering unevenly from bar to bar.”

He was more honest than he intended to be.

 

Monday, August 13, 2018

Unwrapping Gifts


Amanda Wingfield of Tennessee Williams’ great play, The Glass Menagerie, worries that her son Tom will follow in the footsteps of her estranged husband. Mr. Wingfield worked for the telephone company and fell in love with long distance, as she put it. s

At dinner one night, Amanda talks to her son about man’s higher nature, but Tom counters by saying man is by instinct a hunter and a lover. Amanda cannot abide this worldview and rebukes Tom about his ravenous way of dining. “Chew, chew,” she admonishes, along with counsel as to how he should put cream in his coffee; he prefers it black. Finally, Tom blows up and says, “Mother, I have not enjoyed a single bite of this dinner because of your constant advice as to how to eat it.” Amanda is very much offended by this remark and stops speaking to her son, at least temporarily.

This conflict defines a theme of the play: one must change the changeable and accept the unchangeable. It is as if Williams had part of that famous AA prayer in mind: help me change the things I can and accept the things I cannot. Tom thinks he finds a way of escape from the heavy responsibilities of looking after his domineering mother and delicate sister. At the end of the play, however, we find that Tom has not escaped anything. Profoundly emotional memories of his home life will not allow one iota of freedom from his past.

His sister, Laura, tries to escape into her collection of glass animals, her glass menagerie, but she, too, fails. She cannot overcome her mother’s disappointment that she is different from other girls. Laura has a defective leg that has set her apart all her life. A high school friend tries to tell her that it is merely a slight physical defect, but she does not buy that at all. Her attitude towards it has cost her not only romantic relationships, but a career as well. Business school made her too nervous, so she dropped out, much to the displeasure of her mother.

Williams asserts that even with the best of intentions, parents can place unwarranted pressure on their children. But, on the contrary, would Mozart have been Mozart if his father had left him alone? I doubt it. Would William Faulkner be a great writer without Phil Stone, his mentor and friend who guided his reading? Probably not. Would Leslie Lemke have been anything other than a human vegetable without a self-sacrificial mother? Absolutely not. So there has to be a balance, right?

Parents and teachers should achieve that balance by finding gifts in their wards and facilitating their unwrapping. Sometimes the unwrapping takes a lifetime, but it is a worthy endeavor. Jonathan Winters, the great comedian, joked that he failed clay class. “I could make a ball but I could not make a bunny,” he said. But his gift, as it was unwrapped, turned out not to be in sculpting but in humor. Many gave up on Leonardo Da Vinci because of his tendency to leave work unfinished. But in his apprenticeships, he learned to unwrap his gift of developing ideas in sketchbooks that did not require perfection. Then he was able to bring his best conceptions to fruition on canvas.